TEDx at union

Obnoxious title aside, one can learn a lot more from organizing a big conference than event planning and project management.  As Co-Director of Content for TEDxOxbridge 2014, I can say that an incredible amount of work went on behind the scenes leading up to the event.  Here are some of the less obvious lessons we learned along the way:

#4. It’s easier to get in touch with celebrities (or at least their people) than you might think

You can usually find a way to contact famous people because they have agents, book publishers, charities, or University-affiliations.

We emailed invitations to the likes of Emma Thompson and Benedict Cumberbatch, not really expecting to get a response.  Except we did.  They declined due to prior filming or other engagements, but no matter.  I’m never deleting the “I’m so sorry but Emma will be away filming then” email.  We’re on a first name basis already.

The best response was from the office of Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge.  Although it wasn’t possible for her to come “owing to a number of other commitments now populating the diary,” the wording of the letter left us feeling like we’d just had tea and crumpets in a rose garden.

#3. People do not agree on what makes a great talk

It should be obvious when a talk is great.  When you hear an inspiring, eloquent talk, everyone else will be moved as well, right?  Wrong.

This was the first year we had a Student Speaker Competition to get one student speaker from Cambridge and one from Oxford, and we expected the judging to be quick and easy because it should be obvious when a talk is “the one.”  The first problem was that there are so many gifted students with unique experiences that it was really hard to narrow down the choices.  On the Cambridge side, we debated who should be the winner for at least 3 hours and still did not come to a conclusion.  Everyone had different opinions of who had the best talk, and they were strong, often polar opinions.

What occurred was the fundamental flaw of assuming “my world is your world”.  We unconsciously think that what’s true for us is true for everyone else, yet somehow one person’s top choice is another person’s bottom choice.  A corollary to this is that it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

#2. Attracting women is not just an awkward adolescent boy’s problem

We set out to have close to half of the talks given by women while maintaining a diverse set of topics.  We ended up with just 25% women, which in fact turns out to be the same percentage in TED/TEDx talks overall.  June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media, talks about the issue here and what can be done about it.  To summarise, it’s not just an issue of curatorial focus.  Firstly, women are harder to find for speaking engagements.  It’s a vicious circle: they’re harder to find because they don’t have as many speaking videos available online and they don’t publicise themselves as much, which means they get fewer speaking engagements.  This means we need to look for women through different channels.  Secondly, they’re more likely to say no as they prioritise other commitments or feel they aren’t ready, which leads us to #1…

#1. Fake it till you make it

The biggest lesson came from something that would not have been apparent to audience members.

After working with the talented TEDxOxbridge speakers, I’ve learned that just because someone is poised, comfortable, and charismatic on stage, it doesn’t mean they woke up that way:  they practiced.  We practiced multiple times with the majority of our speakers and witnessed them improve with each iteration.  One speaker said that to prepare, he thinks about things that would make him feel nervous and then delivers a practice talk while in that state.  Seeing his engaging talk, one would never guess that he had to overcome anxiety.  This is encouraging precisely because it can be applied to every aspect of life—if there’s something outside of your comfort zone that you want to get good at, don’t say you’re not the right type of person.  Just practice.

As Dr. Brian Little said, we willingly do things that go against our nature because we love.  For some, this means emptying the rubbish bin every day for the people they love.  For some others, this means getting on stage and telling the world about the work they love.   And aren’t we glad they did.

Be inspired by watching the TEDxOxbridge 2014 speakers and performers via the TEDxOxbridge 2014 Playlist.


TEDxOxbridge is run in collaboration between the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.  The sold-out 2014 event took place on the 17th of May at the historic Cambridge Union Society, with the theme of “Leaps and Boundaries.”